The Baltimore Orioles are the emblematic team of this baseball season.
Emblematic in the sense that they have been purpose-designed to lose.
Baltimore was bad last year, but this year it will be much worse. Its starting lineup is made up entirely of bums, retreads and no-hopers. This team is more Major League than the movie.
The team’s most (only?) familiar name is first baseman Chris Davis. Last year, Davis put up one of the worst individual seasons in history. He had twice as many strikeouts as hits. He batted .168. If we talk about the game’s three true outcomes, Davis may be the first one-outcome starter in history.
However, happy news – he’s also terrible defensively and nimble as a dump truck. That makes Davis good enough (i.e. bad enough) for the Orioles.
Despite their wretchedness, the Orioles are darlings of the game’s advanced-stats set. Some teams tank. The Orioles are blowing the hull and heading to the ocean floor in flames.
Last year, Toronto Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins mooned about their potential: “They are going to be so great in five years.”
This was said wistfully. Atkins & Co. may never get to explore what might be called the “pure” tank – not just doing the bare minimum to be good, but actively working to destroy the organization’s medium-term proficiency.
That used to be a firing offence. But the geeks have taken over and embedded the game with Silicon Valley thinking – “Fail fast, fail often.”
If you don’t think you can win – and the computer modelling will figure that out so that you don’t have to think too hard – then it is the modern executive’s professional obligation to lose.
Even five years ago, you couldn’t say that out loud. But like all ideological fads, this one has developed its own inertia.
These days, tanking is not only good, it is the rule. Woe to the executive who wavers and brings up a Vlad Guerrero Jr. before his time, and in so doing takes some L’s off the board. All will be judged not only on the quality of the tank, but the zeal with which it was executed.
The 2019 MLB campaign may be the first true tank season. Ten or so teams are in some stage of the tank, including just about the entire American League Central, and everyone’s talking about it. The free-agent market remains glutted with quality players because the good teams are good enough, and the bad teams have no interest in getting better.
You used to have wait until July or August until you could truly give up on a franchise. This year, half the league is calling it a day right now and letting its paying customers know that.
The Orioles, Tigers, Jays, Marlins, Royals, White Sox, Giants, Rangers, Mariners et al. are not trying to win the World Series. They’re competing for the 2020 draft.
This may or may not be good strategy. (Ask the San Diego Padres. They’ve been tanking since the most recent Bush administration and have yet to get anything but the “losing” part right.)
But it can’t be good for baseball.
Teams will be bad. That’s inevitable. But never before has losing been so purposeful or so cynical.
It is still possible to root for a bad team. I grew up in Toronto. I’d know.
But it is close to impossible to pull for a team that is stealing your money.
Tanking organizations don’t pay for being bad. Quite the opposite. They continue to rake in their TV money and share in league-wide revenues, while paying out less in salaries. Being bad at baseball can boost the bottom line of a baseball club.
Who pays? The fans. They are expected to enthusiastically underwrite this exercise in calamity. No performance-based discounts for them. They should continue to show up, buy $15 beers and cheer hard for a team that is doing its damnedest to lose.
Before we turned losing into tanking, fans could sustain themselves with little lies. Maybe the boys’ll get lucky? Maybe they’ll play above their level? We won’t know for sure until September. The team cheerfully supported them in this delusion.
But in the tank era, you can’t kid yourself. They’re not winning anything. They already told you that.
Even if they weren’t winning, you could in the past convince yourself they were trying. Empathy bound a city to a losing sports franchise. You felt pretty sure the players were just as embarrassed as you.
But not any more. The team’s not trying. They told you that, too. They’re doing the opposite of trying. They’re trying not to try. On-field wreckers who try too hard will be eliminated.
The carrot for the tank is that in four or five years, you’ve got a winner. But that’s an awful long time to pay someone to whack you with the stick, and there is no guarantee of a meal at the end.
When you pull back the lens a little bit, it strikes you as an odd model for an entertainment business – “You pay; we don’t entertain.”
This approach may make good sense in the performance-tracking algorithm written by a former NASA engineer (the Orioles have one of those, for real). But I’m not sure how sustainable it is in the real world.
What happens if the tank doesn’t work? Are you going to re-tank? And say what exactly? ‘We’ve got some great news – there’s more terrible news.’
Once popularly adopted, all the tank does is create a new tranche of winners and losers, but without the benefit of honest competition. It’s an above-board grift. Fans are the marks.
That doesn’t sound like sports. It’s the opposite of what sports are.
Nevertheless, every Big Thinker in baseball agrees that a widespread, purposeful, well-advertised campaign of institutionalized failure should look good from the perspective of the executive box.
I wonder if they’d feel the same way if they had to pay for their seats.